Postgraduate qualifications are proliferating so much that critics say potential students are confused. Amy McLellan investigates

Question: when is a masters qualification not a masters? Answer: when it's a four-year undergraduate course. It is a broad church, it seems, ranging from a postgraduate certificate, typically requiring three months of full-time study, to an MLitt (Master of Letters) or MPhil (Master of Philosophy) programme involving up to two years of full-time study.

Question: when is a masters qualification not a masters? Answer: when it's a four-year undergraduate course. It is a broad church, it seems, ranging from a postgraduate certificate, typically requiring three months of full-time study, to an MLitt (Master of Letters) or MPhil (Master of Philosophy) programme involving up to two years of full-time study.

Students are signing up for this broad array of postgraduate qualifications in increasing numbers. In an employment market where an honours degree is increasingly the norm, ambitious graduates looking for an edge are extending their student life, and their debt load, to acquire additional qualifications. Even those embedded in their field are signing up for professional doctorates to stay on top of their game or move in a new direction.

"The UK's postgraduate sector has actually been very successful and its diversity reflects the needs of UK students," says Tom Sastry of the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) and author of the recent report, "Postgraduate Education in the UK". "We don't want a one-size-fits-all model of provision."

Yet, as Sastry's report highlights, this diversity can also lead to confusion. The qualification appears to be most culpable with postgraduate courses of very different types clustering under the banner of the UK-taught masters degree. In most English universities, for example, the MA and the MSc is a taught postgraduate degree while Cambridge University's MSc is a research degree with a substantial research commitment. Other anomalies include the Postgraduate Certificate in General Education, which is, in reality, a conversion course, and the undergraduate masters qualifications, such as four-year Master of Engineering (MENg) courses or the MAs issued under the Scottish system. Oxbridge MAs are famously not academic qualifications at all.

And it's not just an issue at masters level. Doctoral-level qualifications have also been extended in depth and diversity. The traditional PhD has evolved new branches of qualification designed to improve research skills and combat the social and intellectual isolation of the researcher. The NewRoutePhD, which is being pioneered in 34 institutions around the UK, boasts a mix of taught and advanced research elements plus interdisciplinary studies and professional skills. Another key development is the professional doctorate, which has boomed from a near standing start a decade ago to more than 250 different subjects, ranging from nursing and medical imaging to clinical psychology and business administration. These qualifications are aimed at practitioners in fields usually related to the medical sciences, business or education, and are rigorous in their approach.

"It's an extremely useful degree," says Professor Heather Eggins of the Institute of Access Studies at Staffordshire University. "You have to do a piece of significant original research that must be related to the practice of a specific profession. It's very much appreciated by employers, although I'm not sure how far it is understood in the broader educational market."

The jury appears to be out on the professional doctorate. There is little consistency among the new professional qualifications: some may be entirely research based while others may involve a lot of taught components. European institutions don't really understand its value and there are those in academia who feel the qualification is compromised by its links with industry.

This proliferation of postgraduate qualifications shows no sign of slowing. It is driven by the demands of a growing undergraduate population, the rise of new branches of study and by clever marketing.

"There is pressure on institutions to come up with attractive courses because we all want to grow our postgraduate provision," says Ralph Manley, director of graduate studies at Kingston University. "Research and teaching at higher education are closely linked. It's important for legitimate reasons of scholarship and credibility."

This proliferation is not a new phenomenon. The 1996 Harris report found "powerful evidence of widespread confusion, at home and overseas, about what the now hugely diverse postgraduate sector is offering". Yet Howard Green of the UK Council of Graduate Education says that Martin Harris's recommendations - a national directory of postgraduate programmes and the rationalisation of masters titles - have been ignored. "Instead of cutting down we seem to be proliferating again," says Green.

Professor Malcolm McCrae, chair of Warwick University's Graduate School, says the issue has been ducked and, with no national body in existence to create such a directory, it's also one that is unlikely to be addressed in the near future.

"Given the enormous growth that has taken place in postgraduate study over the past 10 to 15 years, it's unfortunate it was not really addressed when there was an opportunity to do so," says McCrae.

But is it an issue meriting attention when there are so many other pressing matters in higher education? Hepi believes so, arguing that the competitiveness of the UK postgraduate sector could suffer because the system is confusing for the golden goose of higher education - overseas students.

"It's relatively easy for home students to know where to look for information and know what they are getting but it's much more difficult for overseas students, and for that reason it's increasingly important to address this issue," says Sastry. "It's important in recruitment terms for overseas students because if they can choose between a system that is very clear about what you are getting and that will be understood by employers when they go home, or a system which is confusing and difficult to understand, then they are more likely to choose the first."

Hepi's recommendations are not too far from those drawn up by Harris nearly 10 years ago: a standardised nomenclature with courses clearly labelled conversion, research training or professional masters.

"Regulation is not the answer because the problem is one of public information rather than the quality of provision," says Sastry. "Therefore, some kind of standardisation of nomenclature or course descriptions seems a rather better way of dealing with it than a heavy-handed quality-assurance style process."

Institutions appreciate that the complexities of the UK system may be confusing to overseas students and have not been slow to provide information online and to print glossy brochures. Course tutors are also more than happy to field questions from prospective students.

"We are all competing for students and want to make sure people have access to the information they need to make decisions," says Andy Holland, a PhD research student at Bradford University who also helps teach a new MSc in forensic archeology and crime-scene investigation.

There appears to be no evidence of complaint from students themselves. Holland, recalling his own limited options at masters level, believes increasing choice is a positive move. Others believe the nomenclature debate is something of a sideshow.

"I've never lost one second's sleep about this," says Professor Susan Bassnett of Warwick University, who runs a postgraduate centre in intercultural studies. "It seems to be the educational equivalent of the fox-hunting bill. I'm far more worried about other issues in education."

Bassnett says today's students are sophisticated purchasers of postgraduate education. "I find most are extremely well informed. One of the first things they do is look up their tutors on Google."

Andy Holland agrees. "Students tend to be clued up because with fees of around £3,000 per year for a masters, most people tend to do their homework before making that kind of investment. And those kinds of research and analytical skills are pretty key to doing a masters anyway."